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Celtics notebook

The healthier choice

Jermaine eager for more work

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 16, 2011

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He isn’t necessarily the O’Neal everyone’s worrying about, but Jermaine O’Neal is the one that the Celtics will likely go with to start the postseason.

It’s barely been two weeks since O’Neal returned after missing more than two months recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. While he was gone, the Celtics traded starting center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City, essentially betting that either Jermaine or Shaquille O’Neal would be healthy by the postseason.

Jermaine O’Neal played seven of the Celtics’ last nine games leading up to the playoffs. Shaquille O’Neal is still a question mark for Game 1 tomorrow. Whether he’s available or not, Jermaine O’Neal said his approach won’t waver.

“My thought process has never changed, whether it was before the trade or after the trade or with Shaq’s injury,’’ Jermaine O’Neal said. “My position stayed the same: Step in and do my job. Just being healthy and playing well.’’

Playing 37 minutes in Washington Monday gave him a chance to test his knee and his wind. He scored 15 points (on 6-of-15 shooting) and grabbed 13 rebounds with five blocks.

Getting that much floor time was a gift after averaging just 18 minutes this season, his lowest clip since playing just 12.3 minutes a night in Portland in the 1999-2000 season.

“There’s no way in the world, especially being a starter as long as I’ve been, playing 12 minutes a game, there’s no way you can get your rhythm,’’ he said. “I wanted to play. It was almost a blessing when we had the meeting in the morning and Doc [Rivers] said the four starters weren’t playing.’’

The extended minutes, he said, allowed him to develop some familiarity with the system and, if nothing else, it was a confidence-booster at the end of a difficult season.

“Missing so many games, this has been the hardest year of my life,’’ said O’Neal, only 32, but playing in his 15th season. “I’m talking about the brawl year, I’m talking first year after knee surgery.’’

O’Neal missed 58 games this season after playing 70 games a year ago for Miami.

“You don’t feel a part,’’ O’Neal said. “Guys do their best to make you feel a part. Not only did I miss games, I missed a lot of time with the guys.’’

The Celtics expect O’Neal to give them a tough, defensive-minded big man.

“He blocks shots,’’ said Paul Pierce. “He has the ability to guard his man one on one in the post. He does so many things when he’s right, when he’s in shape.

“When he’s all the way right, he’s one of the best defensive centers in the league.’’

The Celtics went over film Thursday and Rivers said O’Neal was the most vocal player, beside Kevin Garnett.

“You can really see him buying into all the defensive game plans,’’ Rivers said. “He’s talking a lot.’’

Age-old decision Rajon Rondo’s coming-of-age postseason series may have been in the 2008 Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons and Chauncey Billups. Rondo was 22 years old and facing a former Finals MVP.

There were nights when he shined — like Game 2, when he flirted with a triple-double (10 points, 8 assists, 9 rebounds) — and nights when he struggled — like Game 5, when he missed 11 of 14 shots and watched Billups score a team-high 26 points.

Now, they’re both All-Stars, and set for another playoff matchup. They spent time together last summer training with Team USA. Rondo looks to be on a more even playing field than before.

Rivers, a point guard himself, can appreciate their skills better than most.

“It’s an interesting [matchup]. Complete opposites,’’ he said. “Cerebral veteran with a high I.Q. [vs.] young player. Speed vs. power. It will be an interesting matchup.

“They’ve been against each other before in the playoffs when we played Detroit. It’s just rekindling that a little bit.’’

Plans of attack Shaquille O’Neal watched the Celtics practice yesterday while wearing his practice uniform, but he didn’t participate. He’ll attempt to practice today to determine his availability for tomorrow’s playoff opener against the Knicks.

“I literally have two plans,’’ Rivers said. “For our staff, I told them to prepare two plans, and that’s how we’re doing it.’’

After missing 26 straight games with an inflamed Achilles’, O’Neal returned briefly April 3 before straining his right calf. He’s been sidelined since.

“I’m anxious,’’ Rivers said. “But listen, if he can’t go, we’ve got other guys. If he can go, it helps us.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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